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Omnibus Review | Work by Justin Evans, Arlene Kim, Dorothea Lasky,
   and Nate Slawson

“When you come to know don’t speak of knowing / learn the world again,” writes Zbigniew Herbert, a directive the four poets represented in this review follow, each in their own way. Evans by memory and lyric, Kim with lore and form, Lasky with ironic irreverence, and Slawson by divergent images.

Although the books represent a wide aesthetic range, each discussion might intensify the others, in much the same way that John Berger suggests that the meaning of objects is found in the relation between them. Consider the reviews separately, and consider them together; each as its own and all as a digest.

I’ve ordered the reviews alphabetically, though, coincidentally, this arrangement also establishes a thematic order: from the familiar to the experimental, the sincere to the slippery.


Town for the Trees by Justin Evans
FootHills Publishing

“I listen to the water / as it speaks to me,” [42] Justin Evans writes, and while we may question initially the caliber of this gesture, the familiarity of its personification of nature, a more dynamic motive influences Town for the Trees. Do not mistake this effort for a collection of mere nature poems; here, landscape becomes a shape-shifting vessel for personal narratives, always changing, intensifying.

            These mountains, continue unchanged
            it seems for thousands of years,
            though now, we know different.

            Each shrink inches per century, eroded
            by the constant ebb and flow of rain
            and the busy companionship of wind. [59]

Here we see the literal change of the landscape, fully rooted in the tangible image, but elsewhere the same mountains change not by the wind and rain but by a more human force: memory.

            Whenever I come back to this place
            after years of absence, it is the mountains
            which startle me the most, their size
            always shrinking in my mind
            like the old memory of a broken arm. [41]

Memory erodes the terrain of both the mountains and the body, and in doing so conflates them through simile and, later on, with the image “small details quietly gathering / beneath the shirt tails of morning.” [41] But memory’s not the only metaphorical sculptor of the landscape. Expectation, want, hope, and, consequently, prayer play their role, too: “With farmers / it’s either too much rain or not enough” [47] and “I throw wheat into the sky / like a solemn prayer” [27].

That said, Evans reminds us that, despite the metaphorical forces acting on the landscape, “These Mountains Are Literal.” Very real things happen here, like the death of a climber.

            From my house I can see
            where my grandfather’s brother
            lost his hold on the mountain.

            His friends found him crumpled,
            blonde hair streaked with blood.
            They say he was holding his dog
            Who was just as dead. [32]

It’s the boy that lost his grip, not the mountain that “kept its hold.” Perhaps then the earlier image of the speaking river testifies not to the mystical literalness of the image, but to our unreliability as perceivers. The river can only speak what we already know. Our voices off the mountain echo.

Though set in rural Utah, the poems contain many people, mostly family, and work to both preserve their histories as is and complicate them. Evans opens “Hunting Chinese Pheasants” with this section:

            It’s a metaphor.
            Of course.

But we immediately receive literal information, couched as a metaphor, in the second section:

            The narrative of my grandfather’s shotgun
            hides within the upstairs bedroom closet,
            waiting beneath thirty-year-old suits and board games
            to be read by my son. [35]

The third of the poem’s six sections is, perhaps, the most complicated in that it delivers three stories the speaker identifies as true, but we’ve been primed to believe that the whole act of the poem is a metaphor. So where does truth begin and metaphor end?

The most devastating of the three stories follows:

            My great-uncle’s first wife ironed out a summer dress,
            called him at the office:
            “be sure to take care of the boys,”
            went into the basement to kill herself—
            pulling the rifle’s trigger with her toe. [36]
The image of the rifle’s trigger pulled by the toe anchors us back in reality in a way that Evans’s more lyrical moments do not: “the moon foreshadowed progress / by way of an early departure.” [52] That said, no matter if we’re in the narrative or lyrical, we’re never surrendered to rhetoric. Evans tends to the tangible like a landscaper, terracing his images so that readers experience a full range of sensation.

Because of this, if we made a visual representation of Town for the Trees, it’d be a topographical map or a diorama, three-dimensional or at least suggestive of it. Particularly in more sustained narratives, he finds his footing with slant rhymes and assonance, as in “Singing Back the River”:

            That night the river broke behind Vera Diamond’s house.
            I was fourteen.

            The town gathered like a chorus
            to sing the flood waters back, keep the world
            from escaping.

            I ran barefoot all the way to the river bank
            only to be sent back for my shoes.

            When I returned to be lowered into the river
            with sandbags to shore up the rupture
            a rope was tied to my belt in case I slipped.

            Black water closed around my body.
            Cold swallowed me into the river’s current. [48]      

We don’t immediately recognize the music here—the or shared by “chorus” and “world” or the long a in “escaping” and “bank,” or the slant rhymes “river”/“rupture” and “slipped”/“current”—but Evans delicately builds his poems on sound and rhythm. Consider an undulating line like “I know now why coffins sometimes are / closed.” [50]

The poems of Town for Trees do not attempt to wrestle with aesthetics or forms. A reader will not find a single tour de force in the language play or with the subject matter, and yet there is something comforting by these understated poems, their smoothness like a river stone, their “The urge now…to / follow the moon.” [51]


What have you done to our ears to make us hear echoes? by Arlene Kim
Milkweed Editions

Arlene Kim’s poems divine the language of Grimm’s fairytales and Korean folklore into cryptic personal narratives that resist, by their wild and varied forms, aesthetic pigeon-holing. Throughout her debut collection, we may be surprised and even unsettled by her placement of language on the page. This not only includes recognized forms but also the manipulation of spacing, lineation, and indention to intensify her thematic reckonings.

In the first poem, “Needle,” Kim introduces a narrative with a relatively fixed form that alludes to a prose paragraph:

            When she left, she left home, left all behind but her children,
                  husband, and the sewing-
            machine. “This,” she thought, “can keep us together until it is done.” [19]

The poems quickly skitters into a lyric invocation of associative images, all working off of the motion of the sewing machine:

                  the dip of the sharp eye and tip        walking
                        the hem, piecing torn    parts;    by
                                    this, she meant the ripping of land, seam by seam,

                                                                        threads splayed. [19]

As the momentum builds in the poem, the form takes on more of the burden of conveying the poem’s tone, the literal movements inhabited by the speaker who treads road or the sewing machine feeding cloth:

                                                            the pace
                                                           ongoing, like
                                                                  muslin through the feed-
                                                                              dogs. Outrun

            the seam ripper. Her
            husband the presser foot; her girls, small
                                    bobbins. [19]

In this way, the poems insist that a reader engage in synesthesia; the visual and the sonic combine to form an imagined tactile, something we feel in the body.  

Kim throws us into a damp, fragrant wood, unfamiliar to us and yet, even if we find some menance therein, we are curious and go deeper and deeper inside, with her who “went alone. / Though I was afraid.” [88]

The leaves, bronzy and full of song holes, show us who has passed before. (Animals have also learned this.) A deer wearing his jacket of autumn whistles as he peers at us, then hurries off. He wears no pants. And look, there is also a hare. The danger has pierced her long twigged ears, and now, everything grows horns. [47]

The final image of this stanza recalls Faustian encounters or even Gregor Samsa wakening to find that he has turned into an insect in the night. Kim constantly sends us reaching into our quiver of associations.

            Everything here grows horns—and also gold. Trees get greedy, but
            their avarice is, at least, pretty, like a daffodil dipped in itself, over and
            over until it becomes only its gold light, its place of beauty. Sleep now,
            Sister. It will take a long time to bloom again, and by then we will
            Know what lies in the rest of the wood.

King Midas? Sleeping Beauty? It all seems relevant to Kim’s conversant poems. Because the poems recall so much of the first language we encounter—fairytales, myth, folklore, even ecclesiastical rites—the action provoked in the reader is also one of the intellect and of memory.

                        Does she think of her brother
                        when she hears the caged House Finch?
                        Or that house? [76]

Because the poems engage the body, the intellect, and memory, and because they take diverse and complex forms, they give the sense that they are a kind of menagerie of strange creatures, living and breathing in the bars of the language. In fact, a number of animals and creatures enter through Kim’s musical catalogues:

Sister keeps collecting dead things. Bees and rag-winged dragonflies. A frozen mouse, teeth bared like a prize. A crow, butterflied open. She pleats them up in her apron and keeps walking. Why do they find her at the last, the dead sparrows, the muskrats and prairie dogs, the red squirrels, the spent tatty-sail moths. [75]

and in “Turtle-Sister”—

            Cruel, the Creator. Whimbrel,
            Herring Gull, Hudsonian God-
            wit, Black-Bellied Plover—even
            the Least Sandpiper all feathers,
            temporary to river, to land. I am
            the only non-winged thing
            in this scene. [65]
Even the visual setting of words mimics other creatures. Some bellow like puffer fish:

                                     We three fall
            and fall toward
            the salt womb, sea-bed.
            F a c e s  s u n w a r d. [64]

Some hide in shells:

            which way (spool)
            which way (book)
            which way (coin) [38]

Elsewhere, however, meaning delivers itself without words:

            The wind, she slaps me over and over.
            __________ [62]

Regardless of the Kim’s unique formal sensibilities, the poems deliver propulsive vignettes of personal narrative. And despite her semi-fetishism of words, as in “Mountains”—

She says as many small words as she can think of:
Oh and and, and not, and bun, fine, tot, cup, as.
Easy words, like pebbles, like crumbs: speck, girl, bit,
grass, or, even oven, even yard, even foolish words,
cheese and chicken, smock, even dear, even love. [77]

—there’s no word-salad here, no stuffy Latinate tendencies. “What we cannot say / with words,” Kim writes, “begins to smolder.” But what is said in echoes sparks, catches fire. “I know the danger,” she writes—the danger of reckoning identities—that of family and of knowledge—in such a way that’s tender and violent, objective and emotionally invasive.

                                                there are times
            When you must cut yourself
            Out from the belly of home.

She tells us: “Claim the blade.” [89]


Thunderbird by Dorothea Lasky
Wave Books

Imitators beware! If you try to write a Dorothea Lasky poem and you’re not Dorothea Lasky, you’ll sound like Joan Rivers describing the Emperor’s new clothes.  At the surface, the diction of these forty poems is shallow—“I don’t love words,” she even writes [83]—and yet, if we are wise, we find a bare-assed sincerity here strutting its stuff.

I care for monsters
But only because I am one [67]

That’s not to say, however, that the candor abounding in Thunderbird is inherently sincere. “I write poems about boobs and dicks,” she writes, and while that may be somewhat true, especially looking back to her previous collections AWE and Black Life, we know that Lasky privileges the mind, all of its associations, all of its vogues. We know this from Lasky’s trepidation in discussing the disease that took her father, that might take her, “the great disease where your mind is the worst thing to go.” [72]

Lasky, however, never allows us to be to be one with the poem, never suspends disbelief. We’re always aware and reminded that we are in a construction, a part of her construction, a player on her Escher-like stage:

            You and I, my reader, we exist in a timeless way
            Always in space and time together
            I do not touch you
            But write these words to you
            Out of love, or hate, or both
            What grand a feeling I feel for you
            And yet it is very small
            In the utter blackness
            Or blankness
            Where an all-emotional head
            Lifts two green eyes with a dark heart [98–99]

Later in this poem, “Time,” Lasky questions whether or not the reader is actually the muse: “I am not sure if it is this head, or you, / Who speaks to me.” [99] This question, however—indeed, the whole question of where poems come from—releases the poet from her dock so that she is “lost forever, floating / Forever fragmented.” [99]

But, as she writes in “Cortex”:

            The best revenge is
            To make someone
            Turn upon themselves [78]

Often self-critical, Lasky does turn on herself, with self-deprecatory digs and speculation:

            What if I lost all those things
            Humor, wit, beauty
            What if I lost it all
            And there was nothing left of me
            And what if I were just a corpse
            And what if I were less than that [56]

And yet, even so, redemption, in small or large proportions, manifesting itself in gestures as wide as recognition of one’s own faults or as large as physical resurrection, looms behind all of Lasky’s actions. Returning to “What if I lost all those things,” we find the speaker ending the poem with a question that ends not as a question (no punctuation, as is her style) but more as a statement, a direction, a turn:

            My body is dark red paper tonguing
            The sun of the grave that I am in
            Will you go tunneling through my grave
            To find the setting sun
            Will you go through my grave to get to another sun
            One that is deep and blue
            And fiery [56–57]

If we seek a metaphor to define these poems, that final image might do: A deep, blue fiery sun. There is something elemental about this collection, something that strives to appeal to our earliest needs and concerns—food, water, shelter, sex—so that she rings vaguely Freudian and operatively humane—

Because I am an animal
And I will always be displaced
Until I die
Because I am a human
And other humans will constantly think of new ways to kill me
And it will be loneliness until the end [14]

—even as wily as the logics of her meditations are—

            Bird, why did you come down the way that you do
            Are you resting?
            In the strange way
            Of metal on skin
            You were built to burn
            And also
            Sail through time and space
            You flatten
            Time and space
            The big world [53]

—or as profane—“My butt is big / But I believe my butthole is little.” [4] Here, however, the profane doesn’t feel necessarily profane. Reminiscent of Dugan’s confession “Oh I look out for dangers other than myself,” what we are struck most by is the glitter of her acrimony, the sequined fatalism.

As for ill-tempered reviews, it seems that Lasky has built in a rebuttal with “What poets should do.”

            Poets should get back to saying crazy shit
            All of the time
            I am sick of academics or businesspeople telling poets
            What we should do
            . . .
            Let’s say whatever it is we please
            We don’t have to defend anything [47]

If anything, I suspect that this book will be an influence to a whole generation of writers who seek a voice that insists its urgency—“I am the thing that most excites you / I am the thing that most excites you” [50]—and also defiles it. She writes, “I will be so full of fire that they won’t be able to extinguish me” [36] though, more humbly, she insists that she wants only “a poem to speak of,” and

            So I go on and on
            Into the night
            And the townspeople, they say to you
            That they may have seen
            A monster
            But no no I was only the dawn [48]


Panic Attack, U.S.A., by Nate Slawson
YesYes Books

Breathless as the owner of the car you’ve just stolen and unsettling as the first date who says I love you, Nate Slawson doesn’t push boundaries in Panic Attack, U.S.A., he warps them like a telekinetic Proteus. “You know what’s fucking beautiful?” he writes, “A sledgehammer to your bedroom / window.” [32] A collection that shatters our expectations through associative image play and narrows our concerns with obsessive love, Panic Attack preys on the moment, takes it by the throat but keeps it alive, wounded, to play.

Perhaps following Lasky’s directive that “Poets should get back to saying crazy shit,” we often find the poems’ subjects and diction discordant: “I’ll pray that / shit hardcore.” [37] The undertow of Slawson’s prosody, however, pulls us in and under before we start to ask too many literal questions about anti-literal statements. Each poem pours quickly like a fountain drink, fizzy, with all the flavors confused—a suicide.
            even though it’s January &
            colder than Leningrad I think
            this is where I write you
            something about your ass
            it is fantastic I’ll meet you
            behind the Pizza Hut
            in 5 minutes you will
            be that girl from Elastica
            & snarl at me viscious
            say you wanna chew my
            lips off I’ve got grizzly bear
            teeth god I want eat you
            you are black licorice
            but I can’t feel my life
            no more not like I used to
            when I would swallow
            every lightning bug & try
            everything I could to
            gunnysack you. [88–89]

The enjambed and confused syntax, the usual one-stanza form, may indicate what’s at stake in the collection. The speaker of “July 4” admits that he feels “lonely and half-human,” [93] a statement that would, in the context of more familiar poems, seem like a metaphor for defeat, but here becomes another image, another identity the speaker assumes.

In a poem that ends with the declaration that “we all have to wake up eat breakfast & / put on our most sincere disguise,” the speaker writes

            we would make a nice continent you
            & me you look 7 below zero & so
            hot you smoke clove cigarettes & I want
            to touch you all over your clothes
            I feel downright pinball & unterrific
            but I’m dancing now just to see you
            hey did I ever tell you this
            my  heart is a fish I cannot fish it [76]

Throughout the one-hundred pages of this collection, the speaker takes on and casts off almost as many names, identities: “My name is Bank Teller’s / Red Button,” [25]

            I am Mr. Microphone
            I will be the engineer of sweet talk & x-rated whispering
            the heavy metal singer of your ribcage &

            all the ways a slow song
            could undress you [47]

and “my name is salt lick,” [72] “I call my heart Megaphone,” [92] and

                                I might move
            to Cincinnati OH &
            become an air conditioning
            unit [98]

Really, if we are to follow Slawson’s twisting logic, we could say that the speaker of these poems becomes everything he invokes.

                                    My face
            is words that feel like
            someone else’s face. [29]

We are instructed, “You can call / me anything you want.” [36] But the act of qualifying and naming doesn’t stop with the self. Like a raving Adam, Slawson runs through the wilds, handing out names like New Testaments: “you’re bible I say,” [45] “O Shotgun / I name you Name,” [27] “your other name is St Louis,” [65] “I name you doghouse / & fall asleep inside you,” [48] and “I will call you purpose.” [100]

Names become affixed to the body, become mutilation and effigy, too. Compare two similar moments like “key your name into / my neck” [53] and “I wanna tattoo my name / on your neck,” [88] with the more startling

                                    In cursive I write
            your name in superglue on the inside
            of my left arm. [33]

But what does all this naming add up to? We start to wonder if this collection was a play, then it would be a one-man show with hundreds of characters. We can ride out the bizarre rapids of the collection, to simply relish in the unexpected—“I miss you more / than jail”—or we can pick out allusions to James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara, postulate that European poets like Tomaž Šalamun has some sway over Slawson’s style, but really we can’t compare his poems to theirs or anyone else’s. Perhaps that’s why identity in the poems is so elusive, so slippery for us.

With anxiety that at times surfaces as self-deprecation and elsewhere as self-mutilation—“I take my pulse / with a razorblade,” [51] neurotic isn’t the word for this collection—it’s agitated, full until bursting with pop culture. It’s immensely quotable but resistant to aphorism. It encourages us to use metaphor and simile to describe it, not only because of Slawson’s prolific use of the techniques but also because we have no other way to explain it. The collection reads like an angst-driven Rorschach test narrative. What do you see here? And here? And here?

The poet serves as both creator and destroyer of images, a lonely god at play with his menagerie of faceless dolls and broken toys. But he has no clay to make a man, only words, and, as we know, they’re more pliable anyway. Not for the faint of heart. You must be this tall to ride. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, consult your doctor. You only live once, and “now is now we are not dead” [86]  


Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013) and two chapbooks including Bestiary of Gall (Sundress Publications, 2013). Her reviews appear in Blackbird, The Collagist, The Journal, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She is an adjunct instructor of creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University where she received her MFA in 2012. She serves as the associate literary editor of Blackbird, the prose editor of 32 Poems, and as a partner of C&R Press. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.